A Malayalam tale has it that one day a father and a son were returning home from a faraway place, by a route unfamiliar to them. It was late in the night, and the two wanted to retire. They soon saw and heard the distant signs of a well-lit fairground, full of merry life. Judging it better to sleep there, among people on cleared ground rather than among critters on the dry stubble of the summer earth, the father and son set off toward the lights. Reaching the fairground, they found things as expected, brimming with activity. They headed for a corner where they would not be disturbed, and after handing over their day’s savings to a shopkeeper for safekeeping, they slept. When they woke up in the morning, they saw that not only was the shopkeeper missing, but so was the shop, the entire fairground, and all the people in it. Confounded by the turn of events, the father and son set out toward home hurriedly. It was in the next village that they found the answer to the enigma. What they had witnessed the previous night was the annual fair of the djinns—the denizens of the invisible dimension. They are spirits who too have their civilizations, their do-gooders and evildoers, their follies and frailties—so human and yet not so. “Come back on the same day next year, and you will get your savings back,” the villagers explained.
What the father and son witnessed was a city of the future; it does not exist anymore.
It is not unheard of in Kerala to chance upon a mosque built overnight by the djinns. Wayfarers sleeping in mosques often recount hearing the invisible djinns doing their ablutions by the mosque pond. It is not difficult to imagine life existing in another dimension. The lure of the unknown can be devastating. Some men happen to see a light leading them somewhere in the early hours of the dawn, and they are often found far away from home. Those lured by luminous dreams fear losing a sense of who they are. If the self is about following one’s dreams, is it by losing oneself that one is oneself?
To study migration without paying attention to the adventure of it deprives it of its lure. It is the affective luminosity of being carried away (literally) that will allow for a better understanding of what drives migration. For the last few years, I have been studying the cultural expressions of migrants from the south Indian state of Kerala living in the Gulf. Kerala was among the poorest states in India before the Gulf boom. In 1957, when the state of Kerala was born, the first Communist ministry in India to be sworn in (and second ever in the world to come to power through electoral means) actively considered importing macaroni to address the food shortage in the state. While macaroni could be fashioned into a fancy dinner, it is still not considered, in Kerala, a food meant to fill up a hungry stomach. In a state faced with food shortage and unemployment—not to mention the entrenched impediments to social mobility—traveling far and wide to search for food was not unheard of. At times this took the form of indentured labor. The boys were expected to leave Kerala by a given age, to head out into the unknown world out there. The task was this: to uncover the unknown in the interest of everyone. Howsoever cushioned by a network of pioneers, the migrant is tasked with an adventure, to reach one step further than those before.
To be part of that other unseen yet very real dimension of migration is thrilling, so fraught with dangers, so full of opportunities. The early migrants tell us of a life of roaming through Bombay, Madras, and cities that do not exist anymore. They roamed until they could manage to find a spot on one of the dhows, which would take them to the shores they had heard so much about. The oldest living migrant from my village told me how each migrant was expected to keep with them a photograph of themselves wrapped in plastic during the dhow journey in case they met a fateful end in the depth of their dreams.
Until a decade ago, the single largest block of migrants in the Gulf countries were of Kerala origin. While there has been migration to the Gulf routed via the British agencies right from the early days of oil discovery, it was in the late sixties that the Gulf became established in the horizon of popular imagination. Early migrants passed on the baton of migration to the next generation, who were in most cases educated with an eye on the Gulf labor market. This is not to be taken for granted, though it is usually. Often, we speak of migrant labor as if labor is purely material. We often forget that cities are not built by stone and bricks and mortar alone. Cities are also built on dreams, passed on from one generation to another. For the migrant worker, the shore on the other end existed in his imagination long before he set foot there. It exists in folklore and anecdotes, in the tall tales told before the auctions for renovations of mosques, in fairy tales of Arab gold, and in the bulky photo albums that arrived from the Gulf.
To vernacularize the affect that is the Gulf, one has to understand the Gulf not just as an escape route for livelihood but also as a bhramam, that is, an obsession which leads to losing one’s self-consciousness and self-control. As Udaya Kumar notes in his study on early Malayalam novels, bhramam is usually associated with the imitation of the English ways, while it could also be associated with the decadent, unthinking, and brute-like tradition (as opposed to modernity). It is that which is to be kept in abeyance to be the proper subject of modernity. It is precisely that which threatens to untie one’s moorings. In Indulekha (1889), the earliest Malayalam novel by some accounts, replacing bhramam (infatuation, madness, passion) for members of opposite sex with mutually respectful love is the herald of a new order.
In the self-narrations of Kerala’s migrant laborers to the Gulf, it is another bhramam, the indulgence in the baubles that the Gulf can bring, that subjects the migrant to a life of perpetual awayness. In Sageer’s book of comics Gulfumpadi PO (2005), the diegetic space of which is Kerala, the migrant laborer is made invisible. He is made present in Kerala through the gadgets and living conditions of his family members who are in Kerala, especially the mother figure. It is his family’s constant demands for ever more gadgets and even better comfort that makes the migrant’s homecoming a mirage. The eternally ‘temporary’ and tentative nature of migration and the many risks attached to it has often found its expression in memoirs. Babu Bharadwaj’s Pravasiyude Kurippukal (2000), Pravasiyude Vazhiyambalangal (2011), and Pravasathinte Murivukal (2012) and Krishnadas’s Dubai Puzha (2005) are just some of the more successful examples of the scores of memoirs, mostly published by relatively unknown publishers. Most often, the memoirs are published in occasional magazines, distributed among members of the cultural organizations which publish them, and usually not available for the public.
Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People (2017), though not written in Malayalam, performs the temporariness of Gulf migration around the centrality of migration to the quotidian life in Kerala. The Malayali migrant (extendable to migrants in general) is presented in their own alienness both at home and in the world. Unnikrishnan concretises this alienness in the Malayalam word pravasi (a Malayalam word for non-resident), which keeps recurring in the work, burgeoned like the migrants themselves with the expectations of others. Unnikrishnan dabbles with irrealism and mixed media. In the occult nature of a foreign alphabet surfacing in an English book (the reverse on the other hand would be considered very normal, thus provoking our thoughts on who can present themselves as authorial in any given place), the book foregrounds the question of the stability of words themselves to capture the evental nature of individual migrant lives in a structurally ensured temporariness.
Abdul Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt (1984), which narrates the story of the transformation of a Bedouin village with the discovery of oil, prompted Amitav Ghosh to coin a new term: petrofiction. In Munif’s novel, the changes brought about by the discovery are comprehensive—oil wipes out the orientations of an earlier life and recasts the humans in unpredictable directions. Cities of Salt, which involves generational shifts and travels across an expansive geography in the Arabian Gulf, Ghosh argues, had to be reviewed differently, provincializing the history of the novel as a form developed in linguistically homogenous communities. Writing in The New Republic in 1992, Ghosh writes that the oil refinery was a meeting place of many languages. However, due to the sheer invisibility of the operations, which render it difficult to be cast into the imaginary, oil gave way to silence. The spontaneous communities that build up around chance encounters have been central to Amitav Ghosh’s own works. Now a renowned novelist most identified with ecological concerns, Ghosh debuted with The Circle of Reason (1986), which takes the reader from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to rural Bengal and then to an unnamed city in the Arabian Gulf via a transit through Mahe in the south western coast of India. Offering perhaps the earliest glimpse at the fast-transforming Arabian Gulf in Indian literature in English, The Circle of Reason was Ghosh’s own meditation on affiliations that are not bound by ties of blood. The work is at one with the ethos of the novel form in its modern inception, while broadening its scope further to imagine a community, even if with practical limitations, that is not bound by language or motherland either. In this, Ghosh does away with the conceptual need for nation as the ultimate horizon of intelligibility of a community, and by casting the castaways as his protagonists, Ghosh imagines globalization from below, or what could be called a minor cosmopolitanism.
The task before us, then, is to hear those frequencies of migration which escape our conceptual devices built on homogenous communities. Realism renders a poor service as a literary technique when it becomes the mode of studying migration because it believes that migrant lives can be made transparent. To be in bhramam of migration is not only to lose oneself, but it is also to lose the language in which losing oneself can be made transparent. In other words, the language loses itself in the loss of self that constitutes migration. The certainty of a world rendered transparent finds itself unable to catch up with the speed of a world transformed by an invisible force, that of expendable floating labor and gushing oil in the pipes. In Temporary People, “An English-Speaking teen who went to an Indian school in Abu Dhabi was waiting to cross the street, when his tongue abandoned him by jumping out of his mouth and running away.” To read this as hybridity is to still retain the sense of self, even if one does not claim origin (and therefore claims originality). This is bhramam, the moment in which all that one is left with is “Yabba Dabba doo,” the primal word in the yet-unformed world, which too does not survive.
The invisible labor of petrofiction—those djinns who build entire cities in a night’s time where many a father and son and mother and daughter find a place to rest before they resume their journey home—also requires us to imagine heterogeneous spaces filled with desire. When temporariness afflicts not only human life but also the way in which cities are built (as Yasser Elsheshtawy illustrates with reference to the Gulf), words become infused with the pleasure of obfuscations and sweet-nothings. The words of the migrant attain an enviable doublespeak, only to be made intelligible in its multiple dimensions by belonging to a community that is primarily a community of gossip. The public speech becomes translatable into a private idiom through its fissures and incapacities, loaded with the enjoyment of gossip and secret liaisons, pleasured and dreaded in various intimate publics.
It is in order to account for the convulsions that migration involves that we need not only new writing practice but also new reading practice. Even though the reader may always judge, her judgment is not to be from the position of a transcendental knowledge. Migration is rather made of secret pleasures, like the one following the light in the early hours of the dawn. In the much-celebrated Goat Days by Benyamin, the author’s note speaks of a Najeeb whom the author met to know of his “forceful narrative.” The novel which is the result of this conversation is a thriller of one man’s survival in the desert in the face of an oppressive lord (arbab) and inclement life. And yet, what if one were to be overcome by bhramam? What if one were to throw away this frame of realism and treat it as it were—as just a teasing frame daring one to take a step further and see what really happens next? A letter that Najeeb writes from the desert to his wife Sainu in Kerala offers a clue. Najeeb’s Arab master does not let him take a bath, for water is precious and is to be used only for drinking. Nor does his master feed him except for dry bread with goat milk. When Najeeb writes to Sainu, however, he writes about how comfortable he is in his new job, which is “in a big firm that produces milk and wool.” “Machines take care of everything”, he says. “Arbab likes me very much,” the letter reads. Najeeb says he is “writing this letter after eating khubus with chicken curry and mutton masala.” Considering that the letter is not even meant to be posted, and Sainu is therefore just a namesake addressee, the real recipient seems to be the reader. And the novel seems to laugh in our faces for believing the migrant to be a subhuman incapable of creativity. In this novel, which is written from the first-person point of view, a letter undoes the stability of the realist narrative. We are brought alive to the impossibility of ascertaining the veracity of the self-narrative. Having done that, there is a new pact now made between the reader and the migrant-novelist, a pact that does not follow the decorum of public speech but rather revels in the pleasures of secrecy. As if saying, “this is between you and me.” And if I could write a letter, I am capable of spinning a tough yarn for you.
The point is not to say that the narrative may be more imaginative than real. The issue, on the other hand, is to question our own resources in narrating migrant life. To read migrant literature, therefore, is to allow space for incomprehension and to know that it is always possible that, even as words mean what they are supposed to mean, there is this secret seepage of pleasure away from our eyes and ears. There words can acquire secret meanings, available only to a participant in migration. To read migrant literature is, therefore, to also acknowledge the limits of reading—to know that every word also manages to lose oneself in the secret pleasures of chasing a dream.
Malayalam literature has also seen efforts to render the Gulf space as one that is not subsumed by the acute temporariness of migration but as a place in which longer history unfolds. V. Muzafar Ahamed’s travel writings criss-cross Saudi Arabia, exploring the region for its people, arts, architecture, geology, tucked so far away from the migrant lives. Benyamin’s recent novels based on the Arab spring, Mullappoo Niramulla Pakalukal (2014), and its twin Al Arabian Novel Factory (2014) dwell on the question of the cost of migrant labor to population groups in the Gulf countries. By bringing forth the question of discrimination and repression in the Gulf, Benyamin questions the invisibility in the invisibility narrative itself.
Literature, it needs to be said, is a scarce, if not poor, avenue to approximate the creative expressions of the early migrants, who often came from less privileged conditions. Reading literature as expressions of migrant creativity, therefore, requires factoring in other creative expressions, which cannot find a place within the coordinates of “literature.” The bhramam that was the Gulf makes itself felt in myriad migrant expressions, such as the photographs, the letter songs, or in the materiality of the artefacts from another age, such as the tape-recorders. Most importantly, Gulf literature in Malayalam, perhaps forever lost to us unless by a dedicated effort, demands of us that we read into the present and the silences of the past, not as lives which can be approximated but as creative voices capable, among others, of silences too.
 See the section on Gulf migration in Chinmay Tumbe’s India Moving: A History of Migration. Also, see works by S. Irudaya Rajan and K.C. Zachariah for the statistical details of migration from Kerala.
 See M.H. Ilias’s “Memories and Narrations of ‘Nations’ Past.”
 See the chapter “Unsteady Luminosity: Reading the World in Early Novels” in Writing the First Person: Literature, History, and Autobiography in Modern Kerala by Udaya Kumar.
 Now available in translation as Dubai Puzha: When Seagulls Fly over Dubai Creek (2019).
 The review is available in The Imam and the Indian.
 Now available in translation by P J Mathew titled Camels in the Sky: Travels in Arabia (2018)